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B- : odd and largely unsuccessful character-portrait
See our review for fuller assessment.
||Richard T. Kelly
|London Rev. of Books
|The NY Times Book Rev.
||Hardeep Singh Kohli
Very mixed reactions
From the Reviews:
- "The Escape is a comedy laced with weltschmerz -- choking on it. (...) And this is where the novel goes seriously awry: It turns out that Thirlwell is, for all his worldliness, extravagantly, absurdly, hopelessly romantic. He believes in sex as a means of transcendence" - Craig Seligman, Bookforum
- "The Escape is essentially an hommage. There’s nothing wrong with that, though the degree of pleasure one takes from Thirlwell’s text might depend on one’s fondness for his source materials. (...) Yet it also seems that Thirlwell, a playful novelist of ideas rather than a Jamesian realist, is striving by repetition to give his protagonist some needful ballast. The details don’t quite add up to the weight of a life." - Richard T. Kelly, Financial Times
- "Thirlwell's voice has, fortunately, grown up, and he has produced an accomplished book that begins to realise his considerable potential. Thirlwell remains a mannered writer, to be sure, but the manners have become considerably more sophisticated. (...) That said, despite (or, depending on your tastes, in addition to) the chronic satyriasis, The Escape is one of the best British novels I've read this year for one reason: Thirlwell's prose. At once effervescent and elegant, his narrative voice lifts the novel's lecherous comedy beyond the sublunary lovers' antics into a more rarefied sphere." - Sarah Churchwell, The Guardian
- "Thirlwell is a buoyant stylist, and he carries the baggage of tightly packed allusion with a sprightly air. Above all, in its delirious fecundity, The Escape is the work of a writer in love with his art. All writers are in a dialogue with their literary forebears; with Thirlwell the chat is constant, like tinnitus in the inner ear of the reader." - David Patrikarakos, New Statesman
- "(I)n The Escape, the 21st-century narrator displays an authorial brio that seems almost 200 years out of date (.....) We may wish to understand why Thirlwell is sending up such conventions, especially if all they seem to be doing, besides calling attention to themselves, is getting in the way. Unfortunately, on that point, our otherwise loquacious narrator is mute." - Joseph Salvatore, The New York Times Book Review
- "The effect, for me, was one of simultaneous delight and irritation. The novel fizzes with intelligence, verbal skill and humour; the sex scenes are generally funny, sometimes immensely so. We wouldn't ordinarily want to laugh about the occasionally tragic sexual encounters of an elderly man, but the author's comic timing makes us do so. But then there are Thirlwell's irritating tics (.....) Yet this is still a decent book, even if it doesn't grasp and define a society, or even a section of it; it entertains, in spite of its faults." - Simon Baker, The Observer
- "Yet there is plenty to enjoy, as well as irritate, in this looping, deliberately digressive book. There are plenty of excellent ideas: many clustering about the urge to escape from the traps of culture, race, and even morality" - Caroline Moore, The Spectator
- "Thirlwell’s aim seems to be to put across certain paradoxical theories (...) that do not arise naturally from the story and are not all that persuasive. (...) Thirlwell lacks the necessary ear for cadence here, and the effect is awful. This happens whenever a high style is attempted. And in many sentences the syntax simply goes wrong." - Hugo Barnacle, Sunday Times
- "The plot mostly limps between farcical sex scenes, intended to be funny. They aren’t. Not only is the plot skimpy, but the flashbacks suffer from the same curiously static, dead quality of the novel’s present; what little we learn about younger Haffner fails to make the guy any more interesting. (...) Should Thirlwell have slipped in some ingeniously disguised line from Bertolt Brecht, good for him, but no literary game can reprieve this novel from being claustrophobically dreary." - Lionel Shriver, The Telegraph
- "The mediating presence of an anonymous but ubiquitous narrator, scattering arch obiter dicta like so much carnival confetti, is one of Thirlwell’s stylistic tics. The effect is that of being chivvied by an assiduous tour guide on a set route through a text in which one would have preferred to wander at leisure. (...) If only some intelligent editor had noticed that the story finishes on the antepenultimate page. But none did, and so The Escape concludes with a borrowing so tiresomely callow that, after growing almost to love the novel, one parts with it feeling thoroughly out of temper." - Jane Shilling, The Telegraph
- "This combination of styles and devices doesn't make for an easy read; the prose is, at times, beautifully written, poignant and clever, but also feels slightly self-indulgent and confusing. And these shortfalls, while not fatal to enjoyment of the book, frustrate the reader. (...) The Escape is a good, not a great, book." - Hardeep Singh Kohli, The Times
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
The Escape is devoted to Raphael Haffner: it's a novel as character portrait.
From the chapter titles -- 'Haffner Unbound', 'Haffner Amorous', 'Haffner Amphibious', and so on, in twenty variations -- Haffner and his stories are presented.
There is a bit of plot to the novel, most of it centered around when an old, retired Haffner went, "in the final year of the twentieth century", to an apparently formerly communist country in Central Europe to try to reclaim some property.
So there was some bureaucratic business to attend to, and along with that Haffner dealt (and often fumbled around) with a variety of people.
His grandson, Benjamin, a very different character, also plays a role, including showing just how far apart the generations are and how times have changed.
For the most part, however, The Escape focuses on trying to pin down Haffner himself, to sum up and reflect on the now dying man's life.
An elusive narrator does the job of presenting Haffner and his stories, but it's a figure that remains largely off-stage.
The narrator introduces himself and provides a bit of personal information:
And me ?
I was born sixty years after Haffner.
I was just a friend.
But his role remains that of raconteur and interpreter, rarely figuring to any extent in Haffner's story.
Or stories, since much of The Escape is anecdotal, the piecing together of bits that happened before the (very young) narrator's time.
Early on we're told:
The ethos of Rafael Haffner -- as businessman, raconteur, wit, jazzman, reader -- was simple: no experience could be more pleasurable than its telling.
The description was always to be preferred to the reality.
That sets the bar high for a novel -- a book of description.
Thirlwell tries hard, but falls fairly flat.
His tale meanders and floats, and for all his Haffner-tales his character never become very substantial.
A big part of the problem is Thirlwell's tic (and trick) of not following the traditional story-arc in his anecdotes and stories, preferring to jump in and out, and drift off elsewhere.
At this zenith, while Haffner remains there, happily asleep, with his penis in a stranger's hand, I am suddenly reminded of another Haffnerian story.
Yes, there's a certain lack of focus.
Sure, the narrator gets back to the matter at hand eventually (more or less), but it's tough to pull off a digression at a point like that.
There's an elegance and cleverness to some of the language and accounts, but Thirlwell has an odd ear, with a tendency to overwrite, taking one step too far in his minute observations.
When Haffner is on one of his bureaucratic errands a secretaries' room is described as unadorned:
Its walls were bare, except for a cork noticeboard, pinned with reminders of rota systems, memos about departmental protocol.
A handwritten invitation to a party from two months ago was beginning to curl at the bottom: a stalled wave.
The whole description seems unnecessary, but can pass as setting the setting; the last three words, however, are an entirely pointless embellishment that reeks of nothing else but an author enamored of a specific turn of words.
That Thirlwell is enamored of specific turns of words is clear throughout, and he even makes something of a game of it in The Escape, acknowledging in a Postscript that: "This book contains quotations, some of them slightly adapted" from the works of some forty-odd authors and artists, ranging from Auden to Virgil, and including Brecht, Mel Brooks, Ella Fitzgerald, Kafka, Nabokov, Georges Perec, Rabelais, Tupac Shakur, and Tolstoy.
It's hard not to see the misspelling of one of those names -- Peter Stephan Jungk's (spelled Junk here) -- as a Freudian slip (or a copy editor's sly editorial comment).
[It's a word that crops up in the text, too: "The junk was inescapable."]
Why Haffner's story should be built on such foundations (or clues ?), or what other purpose this sampling-approach might have is not clear: Haffner's connection to these people and their art is limited, with only a few of them mentioned over the course of the text proper, and instead of making this life-record more realistic, the quotations only serve to emphasize its artifice.
The faceless narrator claims early on:
With these stories Haffner sought consolation.
And yet -- despite the fact that: "Yes, thought Haffner sadly: it was always about Haffner" -- the figure remains elusive, never coming together in any convincing way.
Perhaps this is Thirlwell's message -- that even with all our stories we remain entirely insubstantial .....
But, I have to add, in the many stories of Haffner, he was always only himself.
The Escape is a frustrating book: where Thirlwell's flourishes work they're quite impressive, and the loose drift of his narrative -- like clouds, of uncertain and changing shape in a light breeze -- can be appealing.
His attention to detail -- with the physical and sexual, in particular -- often works well, but as a character portrait The Escape falls far short.
And worse than not being able to get much sense of who Haffner is is the fact that the reader isn't left caring about him or his life or his fate.
The novel is, to some extent, a reflection on mortality and the decline and overthrow of the familiar -- from empires to ways of life --; perhaps Thirlwell's choice of such a very young narrator ("I was born sixty years after Haffner") is an acknowledgement that he was not really up to the task, that he could only try to address it through practically juvenile eyes (and smatterings of others' words and thoughts ...).
- M.A.Orthofer, 25 March 2010
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Other books by Adam Thirlwell under review:
Other books of interest under review:
- See Index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review
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About the Author:
British author Adam Thirlwell was born in 1978.
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© 2010-2015 the complete review
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